In the last ten years there has been some inspirational work done on a national level to combat mental health stigma. Big personalities like Stephen Fry and amazing organisations like Time to Change have encouraged us as a society to look at mental health differently, and more importantly to talk about it.
This work has been extremely successful in the fight to combat mental health stigma. However, the question is how does this national work translate onto a local level? How do we encourage employers to improve the way they deal with mental health? How do we ensure that Clinical Commissioning Groups are providing the right services? How do we get that local leadership to transform the way mental health is viewed?
Across the county, there are around 433 principal authorities in the UK, all with a wide variety of responsibility. One thing that unites them is that they provide a platform for local leadership; they are all able to bring together different organisations, and all have workforces who are required to do a number of different tasks that will inevitably have a direct impact on the citizens that live under that authority.
In May 2011, I became a councillor on Basildon Borough Council. At eighteen, this made me one of the youngest councillors in the country. In my view it was not the fact I was young that enhanced my ability to represent my community, it was the fact that I was still under the care of the community mental health team and had lived experience of mental illness that enhanced my ability to represent my community; after all, every one of us has mental health.
When I first heard about the mental health challenge, I knew it was something I as a councillor needed to champion. Even though the authority I represented did not have a “health and wellbeing” remit and even though my political party was not the ruling administration, it was something I was determined to do.
I was determined to do it for a number of reasons; firstly as a councillor, you are in a position to advocate for your residents to decision-makers in mental health trusts, CCGs and indeed your own local authorities. Secondly, you are able to provide local leadership and direction, organise campaigns, and mediate between a number of different parties. Getting mental health right locally can be a difference between life and death for some people.
Taking the mental health challenge provided me with a platform as a local leader to influence change, to advocate for residents who needed more support and to make the area more mentally healthy. This included donating some of my time to deliver mental health awareness sessions in schools and universities, as well as working with community groups and businesses to improve knowledge and awareness of mental health.
When I lost my seat in May 2015 I was determined to continue fighting for the mental health challenge. I was given a new title of “Mental Health Challenge Ambassador” so I could continue to support councils to sign up to the challenge and continue some of the work that I started as a champion.
So what do I do? Firstly I am still involved in a lot of the work I did prior to losing my seat, from helping support community groups that want to help improve mental health in the area to using my knowledge of local government to improve our locality’s response to the Crisis Care Concordat.
Secondly, I still try and battle the stigma on a local level by being open about my experiences to the media and continuing to deliver free training on mental health to schools and community groups.
Finally, I advocate for the mental health challenge to other councillors, not just because the benefits it brings to a local authority are substantial, but because councils that are signed up to the mental health challenge directly improve the mental health of their residents. It is my view that we cannot achieve the parity of esteem and transformation of mental health services that is desperately needed in this country unless we get every principal authority in the UK signed up to the Mental Health Challenge. Being an ambassador for the challenge allows me to play a small part in getting every single principal authority in the UK signed up to the mental health challenge. This might seem to be a lofty ambition, but the long and short of it is that when local government sneezes, the NHS catches a cold.